Problems of higher education

Print edition : March 26, 2004

Fifty Years of Higher Education in India: The Role of the University Grants Commission by Amrik Singh; Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2004; pages 257, Rs.560.

TO say that not all is well with higher education in India will be something of an understatement. Problems relating to higher education - privatisation and commercialisation, political interference and corruption, mismanagement and agitations, falling standards and irrelevance - are topics of public discussion almost on a day-to-day basis. Is it possible to locate some key factors that can explain the mess that higher education in the country finds itself in? That is the question that Dr. Amrik Singh discusses in this volume. As a former professor, vice-chancellor and secretary of the Association of Indian Universities and as one still actively engaged in matters relating to higher education, he has the credentials to do so.

The prolific and unplanned expansion of higher education since Independence is undoubtedly a major factor responsible for the present malaise. The author points out that in the l950s and l960s the annual rate of growth of the sector was 13 to 14 per cent, which was about double the rate in any other country. The floodgates of anarchy were thrown open because there was no agency to supervise or coordinate what was going on. According to the Constitution, education was a State subject, but the Centre was assigned special responsibilities for higher and professional education. The universities came under the States with the State governments responsible for their administration and funding. The University Grants Commission (UGC) was set up in 1956 by an Act of Parliament with the dual responsibility to provide funds for higher education and to determine and coordinate standards, a strangely unique combination, according to the author, as "in no other country of the world does the grant-giving agency have the power to sit in judgment upon the quality of performance of a university". That, then, was a sort of original sin.

At the level of the States, while the governments set up and supervise the universities, there are no norms for setting up colleges, which are the primary units for instruction. Colleges are almost completely responsible for undergraduate education and undergraduates constitute over 85 per cent of the total student enrolment. Colleges dominate postgraduate education also, and have come to have an increasing share of it over the years. The total enrolment in postgraduate courses was less than 20,000 in the early 1950s, and affiliated colleges claimed about 35 per cent. By 2000-01 the total had moved up to over 7,75,000 and the share of affiliated colleges shot up to 66 per cent. Some affiliated colleges are, indeed, renowned postgraduate centres with better credentials than their respective universities, but the bulk of affiliated colleges have gone in for postgraduate courses for well-known non-academic reasons. Consequently, the overall quality of postgraduate education has suffered, which has substantially undermined the doctoral programme as well.

The University Grants Commission headquarters in New Delhi.-

AMRIK SINGH brings out another underlying problem relating to higher education that does not come up for much discussion - the existence of a number of professional bodies such as the Medical Council of India and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (both set up before Independence), the All India Council for Technical Education, the Bar Council of India and the National Council for Teacher Education. These professional bodies, no doubt, render legitimate and valuable services to the respective professions. But in the sphere of higher education they lead to two sets of problems. The first relates to their role vis-a-vis the autonomy of universities and the second is that of coordination of their activities, in the absence of a National Council for Higher Education, which was once postulated but has not so far become a reality.

Looking back over the past 50 years, Amrik Singh notes that periodically attempts have been made to review the conditions of higher education in the country and some worthwhile ideas have been put forward. But vested interests and political processes, especially in the States, have made it virtually impossible to have them implemented. "In plain words," says the author, "the political leaders have acted in character, so to speak. They have mucked up the entire educational system..." He holds teachers equally responsible for the sad state of higher education. "Were they to participate more actively and more creatively than they do at present in how educational institutions are run, what is sought to be achieved and to what extent it is achieved and so on, things would have become vastly better. The plain truth is that it is this abdication of their role which is largely responsible for the existing sorry state of affairs."

The book is not merely a fault-finding exercise. There are positive recommendations also. More colleges should be made autonomous to encourage creative experiments and to enable the teachers to accept greater responsibility for what they do. Postgraduate education must then be limited to university departments and autonomous colleges that have teachers with Ph.D. degrees. Student evaluation of teachers must be introduced soon and be made an integral part of higher education. The UGC should take the initiative in this regard, starting with the Central universities, which are its special responsibilities. The recently launched national assessment and accreditation programme should be more vigorously and continuously implemented. The medium of instruction in colleges must become the local languages.

Amrik Singh looks at the higher educational scene via the UGC, which over the past 50 years has had the most crucial responsibility in that sphere. His assessment is that the UGC largely failed in that responsibility partly because the powers given to it have been inadequate and partly because of poor internal management.

The blurb states: "This book is neither a scholarly work nor a historical account of the UGC." To that it must be added that it is not an adequately crafted work either. It consists of some articles written between the 1970s and the 1990s along with material specifically written for the volume. There is no particular order, chronological or thematic, and frequent repetition makes the reading tedious. The justification for writing the book, says the author, was the decision of the Editor of a leading newspaper in Delhi not to publish his articles - a rather unconventional motivation, indeed.

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